• Regeneration after rare head and neck cancer

Alison O'Neill's love for life is as infectious as her grateful attitude.

"I've been blessed beyond measure. I absolutely love and appreciate life to the fullest." says Alison.

With a bright outlook and a healthy lifestyle, Alison never expected that a small blemish on her right cheek would trigger a big change in her life — a twist of fate that would lead her on the path to regenerative biotherapeutics.

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"We enjoyed a very active lifestyle, golf, tennis... If you were to ask my family and friends or inner circle, they would all say that I was probably the healthiest person in our circle."

But, Alison O'Neill knew something was wrong when a bump on her right cheek wouldn't go away.

"And they thought it was a clogged oil gland," she says.

The diagnosis and treatment

She asked for a biopsy. The result changed her life. Initially, it came back as nonaggressive cancer. When she came to Mayo Clinic to have it removed, a more in-depth biopsy revealed angiosarcoma, an aggressive, potentially deadly cancer of the blood vessels.

"The rug just comes out from underneath you... When you're faced with mortality, it's such a surprise. And in that moment, what you want to live for is the people that you love most," Alison says.

Dr. Brittany Howard, a head and neck surgeon, suggested they remove it immediately to improve chances of survival. "So we took off approximately the size of a baseball off her right cheek as far as actual diameter. And then all the way down to her facial muscles"

Next steps

Next came the challenge of healing the wound and rebuilding her cheek using skin from her face, neck and collarbone.

"Even when you have someone who's had their entire face and neck rearranged, has well over 100 stitches... the strength of the human spirit is the one thing that always comes through. She was amazing," says Dr. Howard.

Hyaluronic acid injections were the first step toward restoring the natural fullness of her face.

According to Alison, "You reach a breaking point, you hit a wall, and you want to stop. And Dr. Howard told me at one of those points, the body has amazing abilities to heal."

Alison had a type of laser treatment known as broadband light therapy to regenerate the skin. Lasers are used to reduce redness and help her transferred skin blend naturally.

"We use some wavelengths targeted at the color change in her skin (the browns we see): you're actually resetting the cells to a younger state, where they're expressing younger genes producing younger proteins," explains Dr. Howard.

Alison considers her recovery a work in progress. She hopes her story of survival will encourage others. "What my body has done in terms of healing is amazing. I've been blessed beyond measure with my husband, and I wanted to live life to the fullest with him."

You can read more about Alison's story on the Center for Regenerative Biotherapeutics blog.

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